Health-care agencies face South Portland funding ax
SOUTH PORTLAND — A little after 8 a.m. Tuesday, Betsy Ross House resident Pat Ferguson took a seat in a small room near the apartment house entrance.
Cathy Patnaude of VNA Home Health Hospice drew a blood sample while chatting with 76-year-old Ferguson.
"They are the best at what they do when they draw blood; it doesn't hurt,” said Ferguson.
The free weekly screenings at Betsy Ross and other housing developments operated by the South Portland Housing Authority are funded in part through city contributions of more than $35,000 this year.
Other health screenings and programs, conducted by Saco-based Home Health Visiting Nurses Association, receive a $5,000 city contribution.
But both agencies could soon see their financial support disappear.
The fiscal year 2014 municipal budget drafted by City Manager Jim Gailey eliminates donations to the agencies to stay within a City Council guideline to keep any property tax increase to no more than 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
Elimination of city funding will not halt the screenings and other VNA programs in the city. But it will require the agency to begin charging patients or their insurers, according to VNA Home Health Hospice Chief Executive Officer Colleen Hilton.
"I am sorry to say that such a cut will undoubtedly result in our cutting back on some of the free services that South Portland residents have come to expect," Hilton wrote to city General Assistance Director Kathleen Babeu on March 19.
Mia Millefoglie, the Homehealth Visiting Nurses vice president of development and marketing, said the current $5,000 city contribution offsets more than $32,000 worth of care and services provided by the Saco-based nonprofit.
“If we lost the $5,000, it does have an impact," Millefoglie said. "We are grateful for these funds, we don't take it for granted.”
In January, Gailey outlined a budget to maintain current operations and obligations that required an approximately $500,000 increase in property tax revenue, or almost 2.9 percent.
On Feb. 28, at a joint School Board and City Council workshop, Gailey and School Superintendent Suzanne Godin were given the council guideline to hold the entire education, municipal, debt service and Cumberland County share of fiscal year 2014 budget increases at 2 percent, or a total of 34 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for taxpayers.
On March 18, Gailey presented a budget that slashed $437,000 in proposed spending. Funding for the health-care agencies, membership in the Greater Portland Council of Governments, and some street paving projects were among the reductions.
"We had some difficult decisions to make and we looked at many different cuts, but in the end we needed to keep city services intact, which made us look at what was being funded outside," Gailey said Wednesday.
In his budget introduction, Gailey noted the agencies were the last to be getting city contributions, after donations to the United Way ended in 2003.
In fiscal year 2013, Homehealth Visiting Nurses made 4,000 visits to 565 patients. Millefoglie said care services ranged from tending to new mothers and infants, care for children facing asthma and cancer, and assistance for people recovering from surgery or living with chronic conditions that keep them home bound.
"We are keeping people in their homes and in the fabric of their community," she said.
A part of Maine Health, nonprofit Homehealth Visiting Nurses has its own board of directors and its own $17 million operating budget dependent on revenues from Medicare and private insurance. The agency serves all of York and Cumberland counties and a portion of southern Oxford County.
Millefoglie said the basic approach to seeking municipal contributions is to tabulate the cost of charitable and un-reimbursed care before asking municipal officials to help offset costs.
"Losing $5,000 just makes it more difficult, we have to offset the costs somewhere,” she said.
Hilton said she knew some reduction was coming.
“It was pretty drastic," she said last week. "I did not expect a full cut."
Hilton empathizes with Gailey's dilemma; she is also mayor of Westbrook and said she understands the obligation to balance needs and finances can mean making unpleasant choices.
She said the elimination of funding would sever a long-standing relationship between city government and the 92-year-old organization that was founded and still resides in South Portland.
“We were the South Portland health agency,” Hilton said about the organization founded after World War I and the influenza epidemic that ravaged the world in 1918 and 1919.
Hilton said the city contribution is more than half the $66,000 the nonprofit received this year from municipalities in Cumberland and York counties, and noted most of VNA's outreach takes place in South Portland.
Last year, the agency made more than 8,300 visits to 350 patients in the city, immunized 175 adults in 12 public flu clinics, immunized 870 students and 200 school staff at school clinics, and made more than 1,000 hospice visits to 28 city patients.
VNA became part of the Mercy Health System in 1996, and has a $14 million annual budget derived largely from public and private insurance plans. Negotiations continue for the sale of Mercy Health System to Eastern Maine Health Systems.
City Councilor Jerry Jalbert on Wednesday said the council will soon discuss the proposed funding eliminations. He sees a balance between avoiding service cuts to patients and the complications of the city supporting what could become part of a for-profit entity.
“It makes it difficult for us from a policy standpoint,” Jalbert said. “For VNA, this is a drop in bucket.”
In her letter to Babeu, Hilton said VNA would remain nonprofit.
At Betsy Ross on Tuesday, Martha O’Connor, a VNA certified nursing assistant, said on-site visits provide a level of comfort and familiarity for patients who may also have limited mobility.
"It is a partnership, really. When we don't see them, we are concerned," O"Connor said.
Patnaude, who also delivers blood samples to labs, agreed.
"When they come to see you in the hospital, you put a johnny on them and they become generic," she said.
Ferguson said she gave up driving last year, so getting to a lab would be difficult. And she sees neighbors who might be even more harmed by the loss of free, on-site visits.
"I think it would be kind of bad on a lot of us," she said. "There are a lot of us who don't drive and don't have family in the area."